Now in its 36th year, the International Film Festival Rotterdam is probably the most adventurous of the major international film festivals. It is perhaps best known for discovering the most obscure films from the furthest reaches of international independent cinema: a charming silent film pastiche from Argentina (La Antena) was mainstream enough to open the festival, while some of the more underground features shown this year included a Taiwanese 26-year-old's YouTube series where reality follows the rules of a video game (Real Online), a pitch-black satire of reality television starring a bickering, brittle elderly couple from Sarajevo (Mami i tata), and a surprisingly campy childrens' musical based on Prokofiev made by a French couple starring their own kids (Un Beau Matin). This rabid enthusiasm and boundary-busting eclecticism make up for the IFFR's awkward positioning in the calendar one month before bigger and brasher Berlin. The IFFR distinguishes itself by giving over half a dozen screens for five full days to several hundred short and experimental works, which has made the Festival a key location for premiering film and video by younger, cutting-edge directors and artists. The IFFR also includes many theatrical screenings of moving-image artwork that usually only appears in degraded viewing circumstances in gallery spaces, and, on the other side of the coin, the IFFR features extensive "laboratories" that take cinema out of the theatres and into other venues, from museums to the web (Exposing Cinema, Exploding Cinema). These projects included a section of films exploring the phenomenon and ecology of light (Speed of Light), the Seatless Cinema - a shape-shifting theatre with installation and performative works every day - and major gallery exhibitions.
Where to begin, my eyes filled to bursting with so many moving (and still) images? How about the world premiere of Viva , a glorious illegitimate child of high-concept art project and smutty entertainment parentage. American Anna Biller's feature obsessively recreates in incredible detail the fashions, décor, gestures (lascivious looks and sneering mouths) and hairstyles - oh, the hairstyles! - of seventies California, or as IFFR programme advisor Ralph McKay corrected me, "1972 Los Angeles." Biller directed, produced, wrote, edited, composed, costumed, art directed and starred in this deadpan softcore satire about one woman's brush with the sexual revolution. Transcending camp, it captures the bad acting of the erotic film genres of its time so well that it is almost scary, becoming less a nostalgic comedy than an awe-inspiring exercise in critical historical re-enactment - with musical numbers! Housewife Barbie discovers bisexuality, nude hippie singing circles, prostitution, erotic art modeling, swinging, sexual harassment, orgies, interpretive dance, drugs and regret. Quite miraculous if you give yourself over to it, and there's no denying the insanely obsessive historical accuracy.
In a festival section devoted to humble 16mm, Jenny Perlin's Transcript and Notes were standouts, both parts of the brilliant American artist's ongoing research into the Rosenberg trial. A distant cousin of Perlin's was a lawyer who requested a stay of execution for the doomed Jewish couple, and he succeeded in having the FBI's reams of documents for the case released to the public. Perlin's project involves reducing this massive archive of surveillance material related to the Rosenbergs to its idiosyncratic and oblique yet revelatory details. In Transcrip t, Perlin describes an FBI file that documented a suspicious dinner between four friends of the Rosenbergs' in New York that took place months after the couple's executions. We then see unsettling long takes of empty apartment building hallways, shot as if from the unflinching gaze of the informant, whose mastery of the visual field is limited by the apartment door, and who apparently struggled to make out the words spoken behind it. While it is difficult to make out what the group is saying, clearly they know they are being monitored. In Notes , Perlin again focuses on archival detritus, re-presenting the aimless doodles of Harry Gold, convicted of passing nuclear secrets to Soviet agents. Here Perlin uses abstract gestures to emphasize the absences and unknowns that rupture Big Brother's efforts. Instead of an agent's very human inability to make out whispered words (thereby failing at creating evidence), we have subconscious, formless drawings that could never give the authorities any understanding of their author or his crimes.
I have to say I wasn't terribly impressed by the films of Knut Asdam, the IFFR's 2007 Artist in Focus. Exploring the intersections of architecture, urbanism and language, his films indulged in too much tired, concrete-landscape ennui: alienated young people in urban wastelands spout dialogue that is somehow inappropriate and overly mannered - lofty, pretentious, revealing too much or oddly phrased, such as "you sound like a singular piece of displaced want" - and effective communication is derailed, meandering figures go nowhere. In his recent film Finally , one's interest was piqued by seeing three teens brawl periodically with no apparently motive, and his construction of a city park at twilight inside the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum - a remix of an earlier environment - was quite magical (Care of the Self - Finally Edit).
The Seatless Cinema at the repertory Venster/Lantaren cinema complex, curated by Exposing and Exploding Cinema programmer Edwin Carels, was the venue for many of the highlights this year. Where else could you see Tony Conrad in full mad scientist mode, electrocuting celluloid with a Tesla coil, or the 690-minute film The White House, wherein a brutal murder is repeated over and over in different ten-minute takes? The great Keith Sanborn showed a new multi-projection work that included a juxtaposition of two popular, oft-downloaded videos from the internet: one of Kate Moss drunk dancing during a photo shoot, the other of Saddam Hussain's execution. A Debordist to the core, Sanborn casts a penetrating analytic eye to the internet, which has clearly upped the ante on spectacle compared to now-modest television. What is the psychological fallout of the web's uncontextualized equivalence of both of these videos, or the thousands of others that could be watched back-to-back instead? He also gave a lecture that focused on his most recent book from Ediciones La Calavera, the publishing house he runs with Peggy Ahwesh. The book's origins lie in a mysterious still from Soviet innovator of documentary form Dziga Vertov's seminal Man with a Movie Camera (or Woman with the Scissors as Carels calls it). The still is of an abstract shot that's source is never explained, and Sanborn sent it to numerous friends and colleagues, asking them to reflect on the image/shot and its possible real-world referent. These reflections will be the entirety of the new book on Vertov, and Sanborn decided to use his lecture time to get a few of the most thoughtful of the two dozen or so writers in the anthology to read their contributions - including the dapper, intellectual Carels.
During a Seatless Cinema programme entitled Borderline Behaviour, the crowd reveled in two grotesque new works by British artists. Martin Creed's Sick Film ran people ragged with its stream of hipsters vomiting one after the other on a pure, white set for twenty minutes. Beyond its obvious gross-out value, the film was quite compelling for allowing one to see just how different people's tactics are for accomplishing this most unusual task, and surprising just how much you learn about someone from how they throw up in front of the camera. While united in act, it is the differences that stand out, in both degree and kind of theatrics, as the test subjects wander on camera, puke, and mosey off again. There is the giggler who can't deliver the goods no matter how many times she sticks her fingers back there, the effortless skinny hipster, the growler; their products range from slimy string to watery spray to chunky globs, and the film's subjects are organized in ascending order by vomit volume until the climactic, colossal hurl. Phil Collins' He Who Laughs Last Laughs Longest , meanwhile, is a terrifying and exhilirating five-minute documentation of a laughing contest staged by the artist in the UK, where contestants had to laugh as hard, loud and long as possible. After a curtain opens and the competitors launch into their hysterics, what is normally an expression of joy becomes twisted into something forced, desperate and instrumental, leaving only a thoroughly hollow mockery of emotion. As sustaining the laughing gets more and more painful, the suffering participants drop out until only one madly cackling young blonde remains.
Another high point was the single-channel film component of British artist Andrew Kötting's In the Wake of a Deadad, a multi-faceted project that germinated with the death of Kötting's father. In this structuralist home movie of sorts, he presents 65 single-shot tableaux filmed in locations vital to his family. In each shot, Kötting poses with his paternal ancestors - his Deadad and his Deadad's Deadad - in the form of giant inflatable renderings of the men in suits. Ridiculous and profound in equal measure, Kötting's cathartic escapades quickly acquire a pronounced gravitas as biographical details are revealed and existential anxieties mused - but only through captions, there is little to no exposition within the tableaux, only comical attempts at posing the Deadads well for the camera (the chaos of orchestrating each shot contrasting with the film's meticulously numbered structure). The piece also ironizes its own psychoanalytic dimension as the Deadads go from flaccid to erect in each composition.
The most substantial satellite exhibition at IFFR 2007 was Borderline Behaviour: Drawn Towards Animation at TENT Center for Visual Arts. Pioneering French animator Emile Cohl was the reigning deity over the show, though unfortunately curator Carels' attempts to connect Cohl's work to the contemporary art on display were hit and miss. Borderline Behaviour sought to examine the idea of "animation," but the consequence was distilling it to the point of evaporation, a concept divorced from a practice. The highs included those works indebted to structuralist filmmaking, a field that explores the most basic elements of cinema in a similar way this exhibition's attempted reduction and purification of animation. Alongside Anthony McCall, Conrad's presence here was vital in this regard, and his wonderful Yellow Movie was a large black frame surrounding a field of what in the early seventies was once white paint, but has now become a rectangle yellowed and aged over the intervening decades. Imagine it as the world's slowest movie, but one with parameters that are completely arbitrary: any designated space on the planet, two dimensions or three, could have been the support when the only content is the passing of time. Also notable were Paul van der Eerden's scatological drawings, Saul Levine's magazine and newspaper collage on lightbulbs, Peter Tscherkassky's deconstructed 35mm films, and Juliana Borinski's kinetic sculpture incorporating a long piece of video tape wildly blown by a large fan, its dancing shadow cast on the wall by a massive lamp. All of these had some of the vitality and energy that much of the show lacked (painfully ironic for a show about animation). This was the failure of placing Cohl as the forefather: he showed how animation was capable of bringing any form to life, how it permitted endless transformations, contingency without end. By reducing animation to the relationship between still and moving, line and plane, time and space, Carels contains the field's powers rather than letting them run wild. Representation - and consequently life - was too often sucked out of this dynamically charged playing field.
Finally, if one still doubts the extent of the IFFR's willingness to provoke, stimulate and doggedly push and pull the boundaries of contemporary cinema, take note of their sidebar celebrating the demise of film festivals themselves, with the sunny and creepily optimistic title Happy Endings. In a hotel lobby tricked out like the milk bar in A Clockwork Orange, selected films were available to purchase on DVD (thus relieving any potential embarrassment of watching the superb Korean queer voyeurism/humiliation/ scat narrative Faceless Things with the unwashed masses), watch on interactive digital TV or hear recited live on stage - just order a drink and pull up a bar-stool. Participants in the Happy Endings futsal game might want to hold off on drinking until after the match.